I’m stepping away from the Movie Crash Course a moment, if I may, to talk about two other movies: one I watched, and one I wrote.
My senior year of high school, a friend was enrolled in my school’s TV production class (I’ll call her “Kathy”) and persuaded her teacher to let her do an “independent study” in the TV room during her study hall. Kathy told him she needed me and one other friend to “work with her” as a ruse to rescue us from our own study halls as well. After a week of the three of us watching videos of M*A*S*H reruns in the editing bay, we all admitted that “y’know, we’re probably going to have to produce something…” About a week later Kathy approached me with the story idea, we spent a weekend hammering out the plot, and I wrote the script over the course of a few weeks.
We cast a handful of our classmates, the crew was made up of some of the same classmates when they weren’t on camera, and we filmed in a corner of the cafeteria after school and on weekends. At some point we lost half our footage when someone stole a bunch of tapes out of the TV classroom, and held a marathon all-day shoot one weekend to replace it; one of our leads had started growing out his hair for the school play by then, and you can amusingly see his hairstyle grow and shrink in circumference throughout the finished film. I was also in it, and gave my character a moment where I recited the “To Be Or Not To Be” speech from Hamlet; a move which I came to regret (there’s probably a tape somewhere with about 20 takes of me saying “To be or not to be, that is the question….whether t’is nobler in the mind to…to suffer the slings and arrows of for-no, of outrageous fortune, or…to…crap, what’s the line?”). My only other indulgence was stealing a lyric from a Sting song for the title; his album Nothing Like The Sun had just been released when I started writing, and it provided the soundtrack to all my writing sessions.
Our film absolutely won’t win any Oscars, but given the circumstances it wasn’t half bad. The film’s premiere was at a party Kathy threw at her house, where we also laughed through the blooper reel she’d assembled (charitably, she left out my Hamlet fluffs). There were a couple other screenings – one at a church, and one in one social studies class – before it was permanently enshrined in the school library. We also gave a screening for the entertainment editor of my hometown’s local newspaper, as somehow he was persuaded to give it a review. He was encouraging, but fair – pointing out some of the obvious flaws (my script was waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayy too talky) but praising the sophisticated message that was being raised by a bunch of high school students. And while there are indeed moments from the script and my own performance that make me cringe, there are also moments here and there that make me think “y’know, the writing’s pretty good there.”
You will note that I haven’t yet mentioned what this film was about.
The title, nicked from Sting’s “Fragile”, was “How Fragile We Are”. The idea Kathy brought me dealt with something we were both concerned about – nuclear war. The characters our friends played were a bunch of kids, strangers to each other, who had been safely brought to a bomb shelter right at the outbreak of a full-on war, where they were told that if they left they would face certain death – but were still offered the choice to leave if they wished. The talkiness came from the characters each deciding what they’d do (and some chose to leave). The reason I had my character recite from Hamlet is that that was how she explained her reason for staying alive.
So, no, this was no fun rom-com we were making. We were sixteen and seventeen-year-olds who were frightened for our very lives, and desperate for someone, anyone, to listen and do something. I actually see a lot of us in the Parkland Students, and their desperate message that “we are the kids, you are the adults – do something to save us.”
We were up against a bigger force than the NRA, however. And we were well aware of it.
For all the laughing we did while filming – and we did a lot – I learned later that there was a fair amount of private crying going on. In a few cases, kids went from hoping that nuclear war wouldn’t break out to accepting that it would, and it was just a question of when. I hit that point about midway through writing; while working on the script, I’d remind myself of the world of the play with a litany of destruction: “okay, it’s War. Stuff is gone. There is no more Hartford, no more New York, no more Los Angeles. Cape Cod is gone. England is gone. Ireland is gone…”
Once, as I was writing, listening to Sting and going through my Arya-Stark litany, the album reached my favorite part of another song. And it hit me – in the world I was writing, my characters were never going to be able to hear that song again. It wasn’t just England and France and San Francisco that were going to be gone, but also chocolate, and puppies, and Sting albums, and violets, and my cousins’ Christmas stockings, and fresh peaches, and bikes, and my uncle’s model trains, and old library books, and, and, and…
I sat there stunned a moment, the totality of loss sinking in. Then I put down the pen, moved to a spot on the floor right in front of my turntable, and put the needle back to the beginning of the song, huddling the speakers around me as it started up again. I spent the next several minutes curled up on the floor between the speakers, listening to the song and weeping bitterly over the death of the world.
I was seventeen.
The other movie I’m thinking of had an unusual effect on Kathy at one point. While we were still writing, sometimes those of us in the TV study hall watched anti-nuke films as “research” – we tracked down copies of The Day After, and Dr. Strangelove, and Testament. We made note of how each one dealt with the science, the geopolitics, and how they wove that in with the characters’ stories.
….then we watched a film called Threads. Much like The Day After, Threads was more what you’d call a “TV event” than a proper movie; it was produced by the BBC in 1984, and like The Day After on American TV, it was meant to show how a full-on nuclear war and its aftermath would affect the lives of a handful of characters in a mid-size city. But Threads didn’t have to pull any punches, the way that The Day After did for American broadcast standards. So what they show is far more accurate – and thus, far more violent, far more graphic, and far, far bleaker.
We were fine through the opening scenes, and fine – if a bit grim – during the scenes depicting runup to the war. When the bomb actually hit, the three of us watching sat there, slackjawed, staring at the screen. After a moment, Kathy suddenly stood up and walked into the next room, sat down in a chair and stared at the wall, not saying a word. I watched her a couple seconds, then followed her out. “y’alright?” She shook her head. “Wanna talk about it?” Another head shake. “…Want me to leave you alone?” A nod. I think I patted her shoulder or something, then went back into the editing bay; she came back in a moment later. We never said any more about it.
Blessedly, just two years after our film, the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down. Gorbachev and Reagan started talking about cutting back on their nuke stockpiles. Boris Yeltsin did even more. Obama did yet more after that. And all of us in our film did what all us Gen-X Cold-War 80s babies did – we grew up, got jobs (where we could) and went on with our lives. Many of us had been having vivid nightmares about nuclear war in the late 80s and early 90s; over time, those nightmares started fading, and stopped altogether in a few years. We went on.
The nightmares started again for me last year. It’s just been one so far; all I remember of it now is me and one of my old roommates desperately trying to shore up a basement room for our safety, building a wall of sandbags along one inner wall before the bomb hit, trying to stack them tall enough to block out the one tiny window. But suddenly a huge burst of light came through that window and my old roommate threw himself on top of me, knocking me to the ground and shielding me from the obvious blast. “It’ll be okay,” he kept telling me over and over, just before I woke up and out of the dream. “It’ll be okay, we’ll be okay….”
My nightmares about war were always that specific, always had that element of the everyday. I would be standing around in my yard at home with friends and we’d suddenly look up to see bombers overhead or missile trails arcing over us. We would be rehearsing for the school play and suddenly we would all be herded into a fallout shelter in the basement of the school that we hadn’t ever known about. In one dream, all that happened was that I was watching TV and Jane Pauley interrupted the show to announce an attack – and paused mid-sentence at one point to blink away tears. In all cases, I’d wake up from these dreams with heart pounding, and sit alone in the dark for well over an hour after, literally too afraid to go back to sleep.
The specificity and the imagery of my dreams, I think, came from Threads. Not that it was giving me new information – I had already been aware of how destructive a nuclear attack might be. What Threads showed me was not “what could happen”, but “what this thing you are afraid of might look like.” It is the small details in Threads that linger – the staff of a museum carefully packing away their Rembrandts and Picassos into crates for protective storage. A dazed woman holding the charred corpse of an infant after the bombs, staring blankly. A panicked boy hides crying in his brother’s aviary just before the bomb. Threads also chronicles events for several years after the bomb – we see one of the leads fighting with others to claim handfuls of spilt grain drifting in the wind. Someone gives birth alone in an abandoned barn, using her own teeth to cut the umbilical cord. A group of orphans sit in workroom patiently unweaving the threads from old cloth so it can be reused. Surgery and amputation is done in makeshift open-air hospitals, with patients biting on rags instead of receiving anesthetic. Starving people eat the corpses of sheep killed by radiation poisoning.
I am not the only one whose nuclear nightmares have returned. A couple of us from How Fragile We Are have admitted the same. I’m assuming the same is true of that roommate I recently dreamed about – although, he now lives in Hawaii, and had the far-worse living nightmare of a nuclear attack false alarm. At the same time – perhaps fortunately – Threads also seems to be making its own comeback. The film was released on Blu-Ray just last month, and I’ve been seeing more and more pop-culture web sites and newspaper columns talking about the film and how frightening it was.
It’s a fair argument that one reason we’re talking about Threads so much again now is in response to current geopolitics. We have a hawkish, trigger-happy president, one who reportedly once asked his cabinet why we didn’t use nuclear weapons. He regularly taunts the North Korean president, who is busy conducting his own nuclear tests. Our news reports lately have been showing maps displaying the range of North Korea’s various missiles, pointing out the ones that can reach as far as the continental US. Those maps look very like the ones I regularly saw when I was sixteen. Back in January, the Pentagon suggested that we use nukes as a counter-attack to cybercrime. And now, John Bolton has been appointed as the country’s latest National Security Advisor to the President – a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations who publicly stated that the only purpose of the United Nations was to serve the United States’ own interests. A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal also posted an opinion column by Bolton, in which he declared that the United States should engage in a preliminary strike against North Korea.
I’ve been here before. Those of us who made our movie, we’ve been here. So have countless other former students who either feared the nukes or accepted our own early deaths, then rejoiced when we were saved, then began to forget. We had to try to forget to go on – but I’m thinking it’s time to remember. It’s said that for everyone who saw Threads, their attitudes towards nuclear war were profoundly changed; their politics changed as a result. There is even a rumor that Ronald Reagan’s own policy towards the Soviet Union changed after a screening of Threads in the White House.
If you haven’t seen Threads, watch it. If you have seen it, watch again if you can bear it (no shame at all if you can’t). We need to remember what we are up against, we need to be frightened into action again, and we need to do whatever we can– be it make our own movies (or write our own blog posts), stage our own demonstrations, start our own letter campaigns, run for office, anything it is we can do to bring the world back from the brink.