Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Horses sweat, men perspire, ladies...glow

I sat up later than I might have, Monday night, watching an episode of American Experience on PBS (thereby cementing both my nerdy and snobby status--NerdSnob! SnobNerd!): a film on the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island.

Odd experience, that. I mean, we know that, generally speaking, Things Turned Out All Right. Twenty-five years after the fact, if we could see the gentle glow of the Keystone State from the top of the Space Needle, we'd have caught on. But I was surprised by how much tension the documentary managed to create, Liev Schrieber narrating the blow-by-blow of a really bad week at the ol' plant with measured calm...against a backdrop of bawling evacuation sirens and officials going all Han Solo as they stammered assurances, "Negative, situation normal, everything's fine are you?" President Carter, grimly wading about in his skinny 70s suit and protective yellow booties.

Is it still haunting because we know now how bad it could be? I'm thinking of a link I snagged from Mike: Elena's haunting photo essay of Chernobyl from the back of a motorcycle. "Ghost Town" is a bit of English vernacular that's clearly crossed over to the Russian states, and her blankly terrifying pictures show it: every single day is April 26, 1986, falling slowly, endlessly into poisonous ruin.

I don't know why that, in particular, gets me: the emptiness, the abandonment. How decay marks the infinitesimal passage of time, though the empty world doesn't care whether you live to tell about it or not. In William Langewiesche's series of hotly debated Atlantic articles on the World Trade Center attacks, later collected into his book American Ground, the sequence that continues to stick with me is his regular visits, over a period of weeks, to a conference room in an adjacent bank building, where people had clearly fled their breakfast meeting. He writes about checking on the progress, such as it is, of dust-filmed danishes and the scum of orange juice shrinking away in the glasses. This is the image that continues to cross my mind, beyond what marks the event on television (the planes, planes, planes, always the planes).

Back to Three Mile Island, though. The other--really, only--memory this documentary stirred in me was of what must have been the first "Saturday Night Live" sketch I ever saw. In it, President Carter is touring a nuclear plant when there's a meltdown; exposed to radiation, he grows to tremendous size, Amazing-Colossal-Man-style. Badly bluescreened "huge" through a window, he tells poor teensy Rosalyn that he's leaving her for the plant's similarly affected cleaning lady (who, my brain suggests, was portrayed by Garrett Morris).

I remember finding this hilarious, at the time. What could it have meant to me? I can't imagine my getting any more out of it than "the President is GIANT! that's funny! and that man is wearing a DRESS!" I was nine years old. What the hell was I doing up at that hour, even?

You can find pretty much anything on this here Internet in ten minutes, so I checked: this guy has all the original airdates and episode synopses. Ep 78p, April 7, 1979. Rickie Lee Jones sang "Chuck E's in Love" and, apparently, Belushi extolled the virtues of little chocolate donuts, a fauxmercial I only grew to love in adulthood.

I guess that's the gift of pop culture, what it does: slaps a funny wig on history's terror and misery and boots it out on stage for a laugh. Every night, surely, all over the world in countless television markets, Homer Simpson fishes that glowing ingot of nuke outta his shirt collar and flings it from the car...ahh, that's better! And thank God for it, frankly.

(Incidentally, I searched a little more and found my other seminal SNL skit memory: Ackroyd, again, as Julia Child, cutting "the dickens" out of his finger and bleeding out in the kitchen. Wah ha ha hah! And I reiterate: why the hell was I out of bed? Raised by wolves, you'd think.)

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