Kevin Rafferty, ‘Atomic Cafe’ Co-Director, Dies at 73
In that acclaimed Cold War documentary and others, he often let archival footage do the talking.
Published in The New York Times
By Neil Genzlinger
July 7, 2020
Kevin Rafferty, who with two co-directors turned archival material created to ease Americans into the nuclear age into “The Atomic Cafe,” a darkly comic 1982 documentary that both highlighted the absurdity of an earlier generation’s propaganda and suggested the unsettling possibility that we are still being so manipulated, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 73.
His brother Pierce, who with Jayne Loader directed that film with him, said the cause was cancer.
Mr. Rafferty didn’t make a lot of films — he has just six directing credits in the Internet Movie Database — but the ones he did make drew critical acclaim and covered a wide range of subjects. “Blood in the Face” (1991), directed with Anne Bohlen and James Ridgeway, examined the Ku Klux Klan and other far-right groups. “The Last Cigarette” (1999), directed with Frank Keraudren, was about the peddling of cigarettes to American consumers and the world. “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” (2008) recounted a storied 1968 football game.
Other documentarians said Mr. Rafferty’s influence went well beyond his directing credits.
“He leaves behind a deep and lasting legacy, both in his own work and that of the filmmakers he inspired and with whom he collaborated,” Robert Stone, who had help from Mr. Rafferty on his Oscar-nominated 1988 documentary, “Radio Bikini,” said by email.
Michael Moore, the Oscar-winning director of “Bowling for Columbine” (2002) and other films, credited Mr. Rafferty with starting his documentary career. Mr. Moore was just an admiring fan when he met Mr. Rafferty briefly after a showing of “The Atomic Cafe” in Ann Arbor, Mich.
But three years later, Mr. Moore said in a telephone interview, Mr. Rafferty, then making “Blood in the Face,” asked him for help in getting to Bob Miles, a leading Klan figure whose farm was near Flint, Mich., where Mr. Moore was running a weekly magazine. Mr. Moore ended up as an interviewer in that documentary, which focused on a gathering of extreme-right groups in 1986.
A year or so later, Mr. Moore decided to try making his own documentary, about General Motors, and asked Mr. Rafferty for some pointers. Mr. Rafferty showed up in Michigan with equipment, support personnel and 60 rolls of film; he is credited as a cinematographer on “Roger & Me” (1989), Mr. Moore’s career-making debut. (“Blood in the Face,” though filmed before “Roger & Me” and Mr. Moore’s first time on camera, was not released until after.)
“He was my film school,” Mr. Moore said. “I would not have made these other films had he not been so generous.”
The technique employed by Mr. Rafferty and his co-directors on “The Atomic Cafe” — which had no narration, just archival clips — was not lost on Mr. Moore or other documentarians.
“The way he did his films was, if you are good enough at making the film, that is your voice,” Mr. Moore said. “You don’t need to underscore it. This is what I learned from him: that that is stronger than me underscoring with my heavy narration, ‘But the bastards at corporate headquarters refused to budge.’”
“The Atomic Cafe” is constructed of snippets of government films and other sources from early in the Cold War that peddled “duck and cover” as a defense against a nuclear blast, extolled the benefits of personal fallout shelters and more. It resonated with critics.
The film, David Sterritt wrote in a 1982 review in The Christian Science Monitor, “should be seen by everyone who cares about atomic power, the threat of nuclear war, the roots of American culture, or the pervasive effects of the images and ideas that blitz our minds every day through the mass media.”
“In its own modest way,” he added, “it’s an explosive movie.”
Kevin Gelshenen Rafferty II, who was named for an uncle killed in World War II, was born on May 25, 1947, in Boston. His father, Walter, was an investment banker, and his mother, Martha Pierce Rafferty, was a homemaker who served on school and other civic boards and was active in garden clubs.
He graduated from Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts in 1965 and from Harvard University in 1970, earning a bachelor’s degree in art and architecture. He then studied film at the California Institute of the Arts, where he was a teaching assistant for two years.
He and his brother began working on “The Atomic Cafe” in the 1970s, with Ms. Loader soon joining the project. The film had a long gestation that involved many hours in various archives and many more in the editing room.
“Because we stuck to the hard and fast rule of no ‘voice of God’ narration, a natural extension of the cinéma vérité tradition Kevin was steeped in, the project took five years to complete,” Pierce Rafferty said by email. “However, that decision to let the component pieces tell the story, no matter the years added to the filmmaking process, defines the film today.”
In a sense, Mr. Rafferty’s final film, “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29,” had an even longer gestation: It revisited a football game Mr. Rafferty had attended 40 years earlier when he was at Harvard. Harvard staged a miraculous comeback to end the game in a tie, leading The Harvard Crimson to employ the headline Mr. Rafferty borrowed for his film’s title.
Manohla Dargis, reviewing the film in The New York Times, called it “preposterously entertaining.” Mr. Rafferty, who drove thousands of miles to interview players who had been in the game, told The Times that it was “the best time I’ve ever had making a movie.”
“It was a lot more fun than hanging out with the Ku Klux Klan, for instance,” he added.
Mr. Rafferty’s first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his brother Pierce, he is survived by his wife, Paula Scott Longendyke, whom he married in 1986; a daughter, Madeleine Rafferty; and four other siblings, Sharon Patterson and Corinne, Gail and Brian Rafferty.
In 2016 the Library of Congress named “The Atomic Cafe” to the National Film Registry, its list of movies deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant,” and IndieCollect, which works to preserve independent films, began a restoration. The restored film premiered in 2018 at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and later played at Film Forum in Manhattan and elsewhere.
“When we embarked on its restoration in 2017, Cold War memes were re-emerging in our public discourse and White House staffers were asserting the validity of ‘alternative facts,’” Sandra Schulberg, president of IndieCollect, said by email. “It just seemed like the perfect movie for our time.”
Correction: July 7, 2020 An earlier version of this article, and its headline, misstated Kevin Rafferty’s age at his death. He was 73, not 72.
Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries Desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic. @genznyt