Campus Conversation: Kevin Hamilton

Campus Conversation: Kevin Hamilton

University of Illinois Professor KEVIN HAMILTON spent 10 years investigating the secret Lookout Mountain military film studio near Hollywood that documented U.S. nuclear tests during the Cold War — with help from Jimmy Stewart and Marilyn Monroe.

The results are the subject of Hamilton's forthcoming book with co-author Ned O'Gorman, a Cold War historian, entitled, "Lookout America!: The Secret Hollywood Studio at the Heart of the Cold War."

Hamilton, a UI professor of new media and dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts, talks about the book in this week's "Campus Conversation." He also weighs in on the debate over Confederate statues, the role of Chicago's iconic "Bean" sculpture and his hope for an outreach effort for the college — sort of an arts "extension" program. Here's a sampling.

Lookout Mountain Labs involved some big Hollywood names, like director John Ford or actors Jimmy Stewart and Marilyn Monroe. What did they do?

Lookout Mountain Labs was based in Hollywood as a secret lab for its entire duration, in part so it could be near the Pacific Theater, where testing was largely conducted down in the Marshall Islands, but also so that the Air Force could rely on civilian expertise for some of these very technical kinds of photographic experiments.

They also drew heavily on Hollywood labor, to give the films a certain kind of look and credibility. They'd invite a famous actor to narrate films, on screen, even for secret films that only the White House would see, as a way of trying to bring people into the story and lend it a kind of credibility. Jimmy Stewart introduced a lot of these films, a lot of the public films as well. He'd be there in his Air Force uniform — he was an airman — and they would construct a set that looked like his study. ...

Marilyn Monroe was recruited to help produce trailers essentially that the workers out on the islands, who were turning the Marshall Islands into a testing ground, would watch. These trailers were encouraging them not to tell secrets about what they were doing. The most famous clip from this, that's kind of made its way through Marilyn fandom, is where she's lounging in a chair by a pool, drinking a Coca-Cola, and she's looking into the camera and says, "I hate a careless man."

What's your thought on the place of Confederate statues, and whether they should be taken down or moved for what they represent?

From my own studies in public art, I've seen so many cases, especially in Europe, where icons of the past that we're not proud about are sometimes left there as a way to make sure we remember the wrongs that happened.

There is a possibility sometimes that we take them out because we want to forget the wrongs. ... And so I'm interested in those kind of questions that come up. At the end of the day, the folks that are asking for these monuments to come down, I want to listen to them. I think they have the most authority at the moment.

As an artist, do you think they should be preserved in some way, with an explanation or historical context?

I think history only helps right now. One of the things that's come out that people didn't realize is that, across the South, these sculptures were largely put up in the '20s and '30s, not after the Civil War that they're meant to memorialize. When there were enough changes in the improvement of the status of black peoples in the South, these monuments went up as a way to remind folks about where they really should be.

So they had particular histories to them that are different than the histories they sometimes claim to celebrate. So I think keeping them around, telling their stories in some way, is a good idea in some form. The whole story, all the stories, and the emerging ones.