Saturday, February 8, 2014

Cultural Intimacy in Shell Game

At Cascadia Chronicle we are asking contributors to submit commentaries on Lou Karsen's remarkable short film "Shell Game" (2013), in which Washington state 2012-14 Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken meditates upon the legacies of the Hanford plutonium production site in eastern Washington, where she grew up.  You may view the six minute film at:

Please submit your reflections on the film to the journal at our submission portal:

To start things off, here is my short commentary on the film:

Cultural Intimacy and The Nuclear Family
Mark Auslander on “Shell Game”

Having just finished Kate Brown’s magnificent book,”Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters,”  I’m struck by how skillfully poet Kathleen Flenniken and director Lou Karsen evoke the in-between states of knowing and unknowing that characterized life in the shadow of  Cold War Hanford. 
Brown emphasizes that Richland in its plutonium-producing heyday marketed itself as a utopian space  for aspirant middle class families, and her subtitle cleverly plays on the multiple meanings of “nuclear”: these were simultaneously subsidized modern bourgeois family units freed of the constraints of traditional extended kinship, yet they were also family units stealthily irradiated by the by-products of plutonium production.

“Shell Game” nicely highlights the intertwined seductions and betrayals of this familial imagery.  All families are to some extent built on secrecy, and none more so than the extended Richland family, which leached an ever growing body of secrets into its spreading, subterranean “plume.”   Anthropologist Michael Herzfeld suggests that most social units are not held together by their shared, publicly voiced values, but rather by their sordid, dirty little secrets, that are at best only partially acknowledged among its members, sometimes with only the subtlest of meaningful, exchanged glances.  Herzfeld introduces the term ‘Cultural Intimacy” to characterize  this unspoken, shared terrain of tacit difficulty knowledge.  

“Shell Game” may be read as a particularly evocative visual and spoken exploration of the enigmatic familial geography of "cultural intimacy."  We begin with the poet’s childhood memories: she recalls the big word “Atomic”, without having heard the completed phrase, “Atomic Bomb.”  In her mind’s eye, hoisted atop her father’s shoulders, gazing out at the New Frontier’s “sea of white,” she longs for approval from the national Father Figure, in the form of the soon-to-be-apotheosized JFK.  And yet, hovering behind each uncompleted sentence, each ominous warning sign, and each patriotic exultation, lies all that can never be said, here visually captured by the ominous ascent to the darkened national attic, the wooden floor being quietly swept.
Sweeping scene. Shell Game (2013)

Here is foreshadowed the narrator’s epiphany, when she learns of the radiation-induced illness of her close friend Caroline's father: the intimate fabric of the family, which she and her peers had imagined Hanford to exemplify and to protect, is ripped away.  For all the boxes she might build in her mind, for all the attempts to wall out the full import of the death, intimate truths begin to seep in.

It is striking though that Flenniken, while fully articulate in her critique of national security state deceptions, works through her poetry to honor the texture of that early and enduring state of cultural intimacy. Perhaps to the frustration of her more activist Tri-Cities friends and peers, she does not fully repudiate the utopian vision of her childhood but rather chooses, as her closing line has it, to live within the" in-between" state that poetry makes possible. For that is what it is to be, in her terms, “All-American,” simultaneously to believe and to disbelieve, to accommodate and resist, and to know one another through the half-acknowledged secrets that constitute our collective, buried lives.