Old Times

Who knows what compelled Peter Allen to release “Everything Old Is New Again” in 1976. Maybe it was the excess of Bicentennial celebrations. In the seventies, pop culture was obsessed by the 1920s (The Great Gatsby), the 1930s (Bonnie and Clyde), the 1940s (Summer of ’42), the 1950s (American Graffiti), and even the teens (Pretty Baby). Everything except the sixties.

And now it feels like the worst headlines from the decade of Allen’s song are making a group comeback—inflation, high gas prices, a global energy crisis, the battle over reproductive rights, Sinn Fein, and most horrendously, the prospect of nuclear war.

Writing in the New Yorker, Robin Wright reminds us that in his 1991 Nobel Peace Prize speech, Mikhail Gorbachev deemed the risk of global nuclear war to have disappeared. “Historians imagined that the end of the Cold War would lead to the demise of the nuclear age,” she writes, adding that “beyond policy wonks, the word ‘nuclear’ largely dropped from the public lexicon.” (Except of course when W was shilling what we might call a legacy Big Lie—WMD—and was razzed in the press for his pronunciation of “nukular.”)

The first thing that came to my mind as I contemplated Russia’s firing of warheads was a short film from 1985—a National Film Board of Canada production no less: Richard Condie’s The Big Snit.

1985 was a mammoth year for movies and a pretty big one for dystopias (The Handmaid’s Tale franchise begins!). With Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, you had both together. But Condie’s 10-minute gem—which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short—captured with amazing economy our absurd complacency about living on the cusp of global annihilation.

The story begins with a middle-aged couple experiencing a Scrabble stalemate in their living room. There are 12 E’s in the standard game, and the man has seven of them, like a couple slot machines worth of lemons. Seven is a lucky number except when you have all E’s that you keep shuffling to different positions.

His lucky partner has a spread of “CARROST” that she may eventually get wise to. But for now she tires of her partner’s brooding procrastination and goes off to vacuum. The world within this couple’s home is a microcosm of needless risk—his fixation on sawing through the very furniture he’s sitting on, her running the vacuum while standing inside the bathtub and climbing a ladder. You wonder how they’ve made it this far together, but then quickly you realize they won’t have much farther to go.

As he falls asleep and she runs the vacuum, the show Sawing for Teens is interrupted to announce a global nuclear war, which the couple misses because the cat subsequently chews through the TV cord. It’s a perfect farce of parallel snits—the man sneaks a peek at his partner’s Scrabble letters, and a fight breaks out to mirror the outside mayhem of which they remain oblivious. Their own snit ends happily with kissing and making up—but as he grips the door handle to let the cat out, global vaporization strikes in a poof. Outside, everyone has wings (it is, after all, a cartoon).

I had read Jonathan Schell’s argument in The Fate of the Earth—that all-out warfare by any nuclear power would be so devastating that no conceivable interest could be served by it. The bitter irony of MAD as the acronym for mutually assured destruction was old hat. But The Big Snit nailed existential dread better than anything—and maybe it’s because of those seven E’s.

My first conundrum of adulthood was failing to understand how all the real problems we had under Jimmy Carter were supposed to have disappeared under Ronald Reagan simply because we stopped trying to fix them. We instead used tax money on colossal weapons we hoped (wink wink) to never launch—just keep ’em to show off in the driveway. In other words: Shuffle around your E’s enough times and you get a new word!

Six years after the release of The Big Snit—by the time of Gorbachev’s Nobel speech—it seemed like dumb luck had saved us. We were coming off the success of Desert Storm; Francis Fukuyama had proclaimed the end of history. But then another sleeping monster was already being poked with sticks. In 1985, Carl Sagan told Congress that “there are effects, and the greenhouse effect is one of them, which have longtime consequences,” and that “we are passing on extremely grave problems for our children when the time to solve the problems, if they can be solved at all, is now.” Just five years later, he was calling it global warming (“Environmental ref-u-gees. It’s a new prospect”).

Nuclear war had thereby passed the baton to climate change—a reality that Americans immediately ignored for thirty years and counting. And now the Spinner of Years has given us both a looming climate apocalypse and a maniacal Russian leader at a time when Moscow has more nuclear weapons than the United States and more ways to get them to their targets.

Vladimir Putin with his signature dour expression has been a threat to global security for 22 years of us shuffling around a bunch of E’s. Now, however, his dour expression is as unknowing and unpredictable as the ages—a dead ringer for all three faces in Andrej Roublev’s The Trinity. You may not remember this painting because it’s from 1423. But, hey—everything old is new again. §