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Nuclear fusion of the cinematic sort: movies within movies

“The China Syndrome.”

Columbia Pictures

“The China Syndrome.”

Which is more impressive: the shag-carpet fullness of Michael Douglas’s beard (take that, Liberace!) or the glorious cascade of Jane Fonda’s tresses? Clearly, 1979 was a great year for hair. Poor Jack Lemmon doesn’t stand a chance. Which, if you’ve seen “The China Syndrome,” is pretty much how things play out onscreen.

“The Simpsons.”

FOX

“The Simpsons.”

A clip from that movie makes a cameo appearance in the new pro-nuclear documentary “Pandora’s Promise.” Robert Stone’s film is well done in the standard manner of contemporary agit-doc: talking heads, archival footage, that sort of thing. But what jumps out at the viewer — and it’s a sign of Stone’s canniness — is how he tackles head-on the fear of nuclear power embedded in the culture by including clips from two famous cultural examples of that fear.

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One is “China Syndrome.” That’s scary. How could it not be, since it introduced the word “meltdown” to the vernacular. The other is a lot scarier. It’s “The Simpsons.” More specifically, it’s Homer on duty at the Springfield nuclear power plant. If nuclear weapons create mushroom clouds, Homer’s ineptitude is capable of creating doughnut clouds.

Seeing these clips raises a general point. Just as it jumps out at a listener when a musician quotes from another, familiar tune within the one he’s actually playing, no less striking is when a filmmaker puts a bit of another, familiar movie within the one up onscreen. For the viewer, it’s like walking through a big house and suddenly noticing that an open door leads to another big house. Or, in the case of “The China Syndrome,” hair salon.

MARK FEENEY

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