Not every great movie becomes a cultural touchstone. Some simply escape notice, some are obscured by time, and some are actively suppressed. In this column, Jared adopts a few orphaned films in need of a good viewing.
“What if we think a statement isn’t true or false, but in between?”
“I’m afraid there’s no ‘in between’ to check. You’ll have to make a choice.”
These are the opening lines of Ladybug Ladybug, and the scene is a sixth grade class taking a standardized test, but the exchange is also applicable to the imminent nuclear holocaust that soon becomes the focus of the film. It’s hard to make firm decisions in the face of an unpreventable catastrophe which you’re only half-sure is about to happen. And it turns out schoolchildren are especially terrible at making such decisions.
In an unnamed schoolhouse in rural America, there’s a little yellow nuclear attack alarm, because it’s 1963 so they have one of those, just roll with it. Like a fire extinguisher or a map of emergency exits, it’s mostly just there to make everybody feel safe. Until it’s actually needed, at which point, it has the opposite effect. What’s worse is that no one can verify whether or not the warning is genuine. In the meantime, for safety’s sake, the threat is treated as real, and the children are sent home. One very frightened teacher walks her group of kids down an endless unpaved road to their respective houses, so that, at the very least, they can die with their parents. If their parents are at home.
I’m fascinated by mid-century nuclear panic dramas. “Mid-century nuclear panic dramas” will probably be the next category Netflix suggests for me. When done poorly, they’re amusingly histrionic propaganda pieces. But when done well, the victims-to-be argue about how to best handle the crisis with such frenzy and furor that it demonstrates, on a smaller scale, why the crisis exists in the first place: we fight because we are afraid.
Having once worked at a “haunted house” in a major Midwestern amusement park, I can personally attest that violence is our natural response to fear. It turns out, if you jump out of the dark and roar at people, they will hit you with whatever they are carrying, and they will throw their shoes at you, and they will run away, and they will not come back for their shoes. I think, in better lighting, they would not have elected to broadside a teenager in zombie makeup, but I guess instinct just takes over when you believe you’re about to be brutally killed.
Of course, those were all adults. A child’s response to fear is quite different, and the most heart-rending theme of this film is that when children are confronted by the promise of death, their instinct is not to fight, but to try to protect what they most love. In vain, it’s worth adding. One little girl runs home, takes her goldfish bowl off the shelf, and hides under the bed with it. One boy safeguards a tiny frog he found. Another goes to great lengths to trick his senile grandmother into taking shelter in the cellar with him. And finally, when a group of children huddles together in a cramped bomb shelter, they must decide whether a latecomer is loved enough to be saved. And at this point, the frenzy and the furor begins—they become adults, arguing viciously and condemning the poor girl outside to die. At this point, the film flirts with becoming a kind of a “Lord of the Flies in a Bomb Shelter,” which is a title I am writing down in my Big Book of Ideas to Steal
The adults, meanwhile, still aren’t sure the threat is real. The principal stubbornly dials and redials the phone but can’t get anything but busy signals (remember those?). The school cook fills every pot she has with drinking water until she starts crying. And the pregnant secretary wanders the art room, idly rearranging toys and dragging her hand through the sandbox, imagining the empty world—the childless world—that may take the place of the world she knows within the hour. While the children bicker in their shelter, growing aggressive—and growing up—their teachers realize their ineffectualness, and regress.
And what about the girl they won’t let in the shelter? How does she attempt to escape the nuclear blast? She makes like an archaeologist adventurer and hides inside a fridge. Yes, “nuking the fridge” was already a thing in 1963. But here, it feels as though she’s sealing her own coffin. We never find out if the bomb actually drops, because that’s not the point, but I think we’re meant to infer that, if it does, she burns up in there, and if it doesn’t, she suffocates because it’s probably really hard to open a fridge door from the inside.
With its emphases on uncertainty, dramatic irony, Cold War paranoia, and unprepared individuals pitted against an unsympathetic world, Ladybug Ladybug often feels like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. One brave boy does leave the shelter to rescue the unwanted girl. Runs right past her fridge. Sees a plane overhead. It’s deafening. It’s big. He looks up at it and he yells “STOP!”
Cut to black. No credits. Time’s up, everybody. We have to go on.