Henning Engelke

Explosive Force of the Aesthetic. Underground Film and the Nuclear Bomb

Lecture: 4 July 2008

The fascination with the visual aspects of technological modernity can be seen in a number of avant-garde films from the early 1960s, reflecting the anxiety of a time when nuclear war seemed an imminent reality. At the same time, avant-garde filmmakers adopted an increasingly political attitude, challenging commonly-held opinions on the relationship between art and society. Stan Vanderbeek’s animated film collages Science Friction (1959) and Breathdeath (1963) satirically undermine predominant media attitudes towards nuclear arms while aestheticising the technological landscape. The Hole (1963), a film by John and Faith Hubley, takes an entirely different approach, telling the story of two construction workers as they discuss the laws of chance before turning to questions of nuclear security.

Despite its traditional linear narrative structure, the animated drawings bring a number of associations to mind. While Vanderbeek’s films are situated within anti-cultural movement of the 1960s, Hubley’s more pedagogically-inclined films show the influence of the socially-engaged films of the 1930s. The lecture compares these varying filmic approaches on basis of changing concepts of the avant-garde, of animation techniques and debates on technology, science and media. In this context, the nuclear bomb becomes symbolic of the interface between aesthetic, ethical and academic discourses.

Film examples presented during the lecture:

Stan Vanderbeek
Science Friction
1959, 10’, colour, sound

"If this film has a social ambition, it is to help disarm the social fuse of people living in anxiety, to point out the insidious folly of competitive suicide (by way of rockets). In this film and others I am trying to evolve a ‘litera-graphic’ image, an international sign language of fantasy and satire. There is a social literature through filmic pantomime, that is, non-verbal comedy satire; a ‘comic-ominous’ image that pertains to our time and interests which Hollywood and the commercial cinema are ignoring. Juxtaposition and mistaken identity are two important factors in experimental comedy; what is the comic image? What is the comic catalyst? What about experimental comedy along the borders of dream and reality?" - Stan Vanderbeek, 1964

1963, 15’, b/w, sound

"Dedicated to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. A surrealistic fantasy based on the 15th century woodcuts of the dance of the dead. ... a film experiment that deals with the photo reality and the surrealism of life. It is a collage-animation that cuts up photos and newsreel film and reassembles them, producing an image that is a mixture of unexplainable facts (Why is Harpo Marx playing harp in the middle of the battlefield?) with the inexplicable act (Why is there a battlefield?). It is a black comedy, a fantasy that mocks death ... a parabolic parable." - Stan Vanderbeek

Faith Hubley und John Hubley
The Hole
1962, 58’, colour, sound

This animated film takes place deep inside the earth, where two construction workers are arguing about the opportunity, laws and dangers of nuclear destruction. An errant rat suddenly sounds the alarm for an air attack while a crane drops a load of debris with a deafening thud. Afraid that the "bomb" has been dropped, one of the construction workers climbs to the earth’s surface to have a look. The dialogue was improvised by Dizzy Gillespie and George Matthew. The Hole brought Faith and John Hubley their second Oscar in 1962.