Tag Archives: The Cold War

Savoring Sidewalk 2021

REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” blasted through the Alabama Theatre near the start of the Opening Night festivities and screening for the 2021 “Homecoming” chapter of Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival. It was labelled “Homecoming” because the festival was returning to its home in Birmingham’s downtown theatre district after exiling itself to drive-in screenings for the 2020 pandemic version.

When I preordered my pass for the festival, I was not expecting the upsurge in Covid outbreaks and the “break-out” cases of fully-vaccinated people that have plagued the second half of the summer. Also, Alabama – embarrassingly – has one of the lowest rates of vaccination in the country. As my great-grandfather McCarn, who was an old-time country schoolteacher in Cullman County, allegedly said about some of his students, “You just can’t beat sense into these stupid people.” (And Grandpa taught school back in a time when you could try.)

But the good people of Sidewalk have been conscious and responsible throughout the time of Covid and, when screenings resumed at the Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center late last year, I felt safe each time I attended. For this year’s festival, proof of vaccination or a current negative Covid test, diligent masking, and lowered seating capacities made the event feel as safe as it could be in our current moment.

Fittingly, the Opening Night movie was Television Event, a 2020 documentary by Jeff Daniels (not the actor) about the making of the 1983 made-for-television movie, The Day After. Opening Night at Sidewalk is often something frothy and light-hearted – a respite, perhaps, before the usually more serious fare of the festival weekend. This year the programmers chose a heavier appetizer.

The Day After, directed by Nicholas Meyer, is a drama about a nuclear attack and its impact on the town of Topeka, Kansas. Daniels’s documentary explores the fear during the Cold War era and the controversy and politics surrounding the production. Younger audiences can’t comprehend what those years were like for Baby Boomers who grew up when “duck and cover” school drills for nuclear attacks were almost as common as fire drills. The film reminds us that a large portion of the U.S. population expected nuclear war within the decade. I remember seeing spray-painted outlines, representing vaporized bodies, drawn on the sidewalks at the University of Alabama to commemorate the anniversaries of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima.

One hundred million Americans watched the ABC broadcast of The Day After when it premiered in November 1983. Television Event makes much of the fact that such a communal television experience can never happen again. The documentary implies that the film might even have influenced Reagan’s decision to pursue nuclear arms limitations with the Soviets.

The screening was followed by a made-for-Sidewalk panel moderated by AL.com’s Ben Flanagan and including broadcast journalist Ted Koppel and the director, Nicholas Meyer. Among the more urgent comments made during the panel were Meyer’s suggestion that, with the rise of terrorism, the nuclear threat is as bad as it’s ever been and Koppel’s assertion that cyber-attack is an even greater threat than nuclear to national and world security in our present time.

The eye-opening Opening Night screening was also entertaining and lived up to Creative Director Rachel Morgan’s promise to scare the audience. It was good to be back at the Alabama Theatre in an ongoing search for somewhat “normal” experiences in 2021.

I have a tendency to watch mostly documentaries at Sidewalk and 2021 was no exception. Ailey, directed by Jamila Wignot, provides an intimate portrait of the celebrated choreographer and stunning archival footage of performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Ailey was screened at the Lyric Theatre and, in its introduction, the audience was reminded that we were the first audiences in the Lyric since March 2020. Dancer Germaul Barnes, in a moving and dramatic pre-screening tribute to Ailey, encouraged the audience to look around at the people around us. It was a reminder to be in the moment.

The Capote Tapes, directed by Ebs Burnough, revisits the life of the twentieth-century writer with new audio from George Plimpton’s interviews for his 1997 oral biography of Capote. The film focuses on the many scandals and broken friendships that attended Capote’s final legendary but unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.

The homegrown documentary, Socks on Fire, directed by Bo McGuire, chronicles a family drama. McGuire, whose writing and voiceovers in the film are impressive, directs a vivid and imaginative rendering of the squabble over his beloved grandmother’s estate – centered on homophobic Aunt Sharon, who changes the locks, and drag queen Uncle John, who assumes he will continue to live in his mother’s house.

Socks on Fire takes place in Alabama and earned the best documentary prize at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. McGuire tells his family’s story with humor, love, and energy. The film itself is a creative log ride; in case that was not enough, McGuire’s animated introduction included live performances by three drag queens on the Alabama stage (well, two drag queens and a third act, “Saliva Godiva,” whose frenzied performance seems to defy any known label). One performer, Queen Brown Suga Spice, seemed to have a couple of praise dancers as back-up. As the ladies performed, runners passed the hat around the theatre to collect tips from the audience.

In his introduction, McGuire again made the point that seemed to be a theme for this 23rd edition of Sidewalk. He stressed the importance of the communal audience experience that is central to the filmmaker’s art. Being back together in actual theatres in downtown was a reminder of how much has been missed over the past year and a half.

Queen Brown Suga Spice at the Alabama

In earlier years, I would try to see how many screenings I could squeeze in on Sidewalk weekend. Nowadays, I curate carefully and take time to savor the experience. Sidewalk 23 did not disappoint.

5th of July


Fallout Shelter Logo  One of my credit cards was compromised online recently by an Uber patron, it seems. The problem was addressed and headed off fairly quickly but when I told my mother about it in a telephone conversation she began to lament all of the crime and evil that are taking place around us and that thread inevitably lead to concern over our politicians, gun laws, and the hopeless impending election. I thought about that for a while and finally I said, “Well, yeah, but at least we don’t have to worry about the stagecoach getting held up by a bunch of armed bandits.”

We’re always living in scary times, I guess.

I was too young to fully participate in the 1960s. But I was there and aware and curious as a young boy – reading the daily newspaper from an early age and never missing the national news that aired each evening at 5:30. I knew (kind of) what was going on in the world around me.

It was pretty interesting. And pretty scary at times.

In October 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis was happening, I was nearing the end of my second month of second grade. I wasn’t sure what was going on but was aware of the gravity in the voices of the newscasters and the hushed tones of my parents as they discussed the news of the day. The teachers at school would huddle together outside the classroom, whispering and looking anxiously back at their charges.

In the television in the den the grim voices were reporting on foreboding things that I didn’t quite comprehend. We usually watched Huntley and Brinkley in those days.  I remember going out into the back yard and looking up at the skies at the dark clouds gathering. Or is that just my imagination playing tricks with my memory?

I didn’t understand what was happening but I was aware when the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis was past and there was a palpable sigh of relief among the grown-ups.

Radio Free Europe was an agency that was broadcasting news and programming from the west into the communist bloc behind the “Iron Curtain.” In the ‘60s, regular television public service announcements would raise awareness about Radio Free Europe. Those PSAs would feature a European deejay behind the controls at a radio station introducing the American song “On Broadway” by The Drifters.

1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign ads featured the image of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev warning the west that “We will bury you!” For many Baby Boomers, I suspect that Khrushchev’s was the face of the boogeyman.

In addition to the usual attractions and agricultural exhibitions of a state fair, I remember a trip to the state fair at the old fairgrounds on 3rd Avenue West in Birmingham in the 60s that also featured fallout shelters for the home back yard. Climbing into the tight quarters, there was information on how many supplies would be needed to survive nuclear fallout. Civil defense signs indicating the locations of fallout shelters were still scattered around when I was grown.

During the time that I was discovering the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, and Motown, I was also living in Birmingham at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Anticipation about the Cold War was augmented by consciousness of the various social movements afoot stateside.

Back then “Breaking News” reports on the television were really breaking news and we would stop and wait to see what had happened. The PTA at Green Acres School had just finished its drive to supply a television for every classroom (largely by collecting S&H Green Stamps) so my third grade class was able to watch live as the announcement was made that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.

Schools had regular bomb drills and “duck and cover” was a mantra promoted in instructional films by a helmeted “Bert the Turtle.” Green Acres was a neighborhood school and most of its students lived within easy walking distance. I lived a block from the school and even had permission to go home for lunch.

So I wasn’t concerned when we got a note to take to our parents saying that on a selected day all city school students would be dismissed promptly at 3:00 and were to walk, not run, to their home. This applied to the children who were picked up at school as well as the majority of us who walked. The directive said that somebody should be at the student’s home to record precisely what time the student arrived. For the majority of us in my neighborhood in the ‘60s that person would have been our mothers.

The next day we were instructed to return the filled out time sheet to our teachers. The result of this exercise was that those of us who could walk home within a certain amount of minutes would be released to our homes in the event of an impending air attack. The rest would remain at the school with their teacher to “duck and cover” I guess.

I was a young and naïve schoolboy but I was pretty sure even then that the duck and cover routine wasn’t going to be any kind of protection if the Soviets started bombing us. There was solace in the fact that I would at least get to be home when it happened.

The 1960s continued and in October 1969 I was in junior high in Nashville. On the day of the Vietnam Peace Moratorium I got to school and heard whispering all around. Some of the students were organizing a massive school walk-out at 1:00 p.m. to protest the war. It was hard to concentrate in class with the tension and anticipation. Between classes, in classes, and during lunch people kept asking, “Are you walking out?”

I kept saying, “I don’t know. Let’s wait and see what happens.” But deep down I knew I probably wouldn’t. I’d get in trouble with Dad and Mother if I left school without permission.

At 12:55 the nervous energy was bubbling throughout the school. I had overheard some of the teachers talking together and trying to decide the best course of action when the walk-out occurred.

Suddenly the static-filled school PA system came on and an assistant principal made an announcement that the entire school would go outside at 1:00 p.m. and stand in silence for ten minutes to honor the soldiers who were serving or who had been killed in Vietnam and that regular classes would resume at 1:15.

There were grumbles among the student organizers that their thunder had been stolen by the administration. For me and probably most of my classmates there was relief that we would not have to make a decision about civil disobedience that afternoon. When our ten minutes were up the majority of us went back to class; a few walked down the street and away …

The 1960s was a combustible and scary time – albeit one with a fabulous soundtrack and lots of style.  Looking back from the perspective of a much more complicated world half a century later, the struggles of the 1960s seem better defined, much less confusing, and – frankly – much less threatening than the world we are dealing with in today’s 24-hour never-ending news cycle.

Back then, we could more easily put a face with the threat and the moral boundaries seemed more clear. Nowadays, not so much. The fireworks and celebrations of Independence Day are always followed by the realities of July 5.