In 1959, ex-U.S. Air Force Major Claude R. Eatherly was in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Waco, Texas. It wasn’t his first stay. A decade and a half of botched robberies, hot checks, and harebrained schemes resulted in court-ordered commitment to the hospital multiple times. He was alternately diagnosed as schizophrenic, depressed, and “devoid of any sense of reality,” and he underwent insulin coma and electroshock treatments. Eatherly’s case received far more media attention than other veterans whose symptoms wouldn’t be formally recognized as PTSD until 1980. A narrative had emerged in the trials, newspaper articles, and made-for-TV movies that began to run with, and to fictionalize, the “Eatherly affair”: that his crimes, attempted suicides, and general incapacity to become a productive member of society was the consequence of a profound guilt over his role as the military weather pilot whose “all clear” report enabled the atomic destruction of Hiroshima. Others were unconvinced, seeing him as nothing more than a con man, fraud, gambler, and liar who dodged jail time by feigning mad- ness and remorse.
A letter for Eatherly arrived at the hospital in 1959 and offered a different explanation: that his crimes were not just the expression of an individual guilt asking to be punished, but also the symptom of a general condition. This was the condition of living amongst technological systems of production and destruction that had eclipsed the human capacity to adequately imagine their consequences. The letter was written by Günther Anders, a German philosopher and anti-nuclear activist for whom atomic weapons epitomized and made unmistakably visible this broader situation, pushing the human species and the world at large into a “time of the end” that could not be exited as long as the threat of nuclear proliferation remained. He and Eatherly began a long correspondence, which discussed the work of anti-nuclear organizing, attempts to lobby for Eatherly’s release from the hospital, and a film that never came to be: Bob Hope’s attempted biopic of the life and crimes of Eatherly, a film that Anders warned stridently against, arguing that it would replace him with a facsimile and falsify the most “fatal act” of the century.1
Straight Flush takes shape in the negative space of this unmade film, extending Anders’s rejection of the proposed movie and articulating a broader refusal of the iconic images and atomic aesthetics that shaped public memory and sought to nullify revolt against nuclear proliferation, pollution, and the exploitation of indigenous land. It was filmed in the barracks of the decommissioned Wendover Air Force base, just north of Dugway Proving Ground, the largest weapons testing site in the United States, and straddling the Utah-Nevada state line along which casinos crowd, capitalizing on their location as the eastern-most gambling town in the state. For three nights prior to the shoot, the military carried out exercises, blacking out the electrical grid and laying fake minefields, as 300 paratroopers dropped from helicopters to practice variations on the recapture of a civilian airport taken by enemy forces. In the days of the shoot, Civil Air Patrol Cadets marched and carried out drills to the shouts of their commanders, and on the final day, a storm surged across Wendover where, as luck would have it, the clouds split around the airport, saving the set from the worst of the weather. These sounds carried into the space of the barracks and the film, where Lily Gladstone, Bill Sage, and Dana Wheeler-Nicholson kill time, gamble, smoke, and read the screenplay, traversing histories of land use, Hollywood, and military testing. They play actors, scenarists, and script supervisors in the process of a rehearsal and revision of the script. Two characters appear in sound alone. Patrick Winczewski, a German director and actor known for providing the dubbed voices of the American stars Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, takes up the words of Anders, while pianist Jason Moran composes and performs as Charlotte Zelka, the Amer- ican pianist and partner of Anders who typed his letters when his arthritis prevented him from writing.
Borrowing from the conventions of documentaries and feature films alike, Straight Flush remains provisional and disarticulated, left midway through a process of production. It gathers the shots, soundtracks, texts, and lighting effects that together might constitute the building blocks of a film, yet attempts to hold them in tension and arrhythmic synchronization. As Eatherly writes, drugged from the hospital, “please excuse the continuity.”2
1. Günther Anders and Claude Eatherly, Burning Conscience: The Case of the Hiroshima Pilot, Claude Eatherly, Told in His Letters to Günther Anders (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1962), 28.
2. Anders and Eatherly, Burning, 77.