The Bomb Studio: Science, America, and Hollywood in the Films of the Air Force's Lookout Mountain Laboratory
With Kevin Hamilton (Art and Design)
In the 1950s and 60s, it was common practice for top U.S. officials, both civilian and military, to view specially made “film reports” from government studios documenting the latest news from the world of “big science.” Even before official written reports were completed, these classified films presented the technological developments, strategic promise, explosive power, and perils of nuclear weaponry and helped to legitimate the Cold War expansion of the U.S. nuclear weapons program. During their Center appointment, Professors Hamilton and O’Gorman will examine a set of these films, produced by the 1352nd Photographic Group of the U.S. Air Force, known as Lookout Mountain Laboratory (LML) after its hilltop location in Hollywood, California.
Over its two-decade history (1947-69) LML employed as many as 200 personnel at a time and produced at least 1,000 films related to America’s nuclear weapons program. In their project, the professors will seek to clarify LML’s institutional genesis and evolution, including changes in mission; establish the proportions of effort devoted to film production and archiving, filming for weapons testing, filming for weapons training, consulting to Hollywood, and technological innovation; and trace how films were commissioned, produced, and distributed to discern what overall methodology, if any, governed LML’s approach.
The rhetorical power of these films, the professors argue, depended on their unusual synthesis of discourses drawn from American civic nationalism, modernization, and classical Hollywood cinema. In writing the book-length story, they will work at the junction of three areas of inquiry: (a) war and political culture, as they approach the historical context of LML films, (b) human-machine relationships, very much the subject of LML films and a component of the discourse of modernization in the Cold War, and (c) the medium of LML films as products of mid-century Hollywood and a part of film history. This project is the Center’s first joint appointment.